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Origin of Ezhavas and Tiyas
Ezhavas form the most numerous ethnic group (40%) of Kerala. For long they were treated as outcastes by the Brahmins and the Nairs; nevertheless, these earliest sons of the soil--the first Munda-Dravidian immigrants--retained their pride and ethnic identity and rose above adversity by means of Hindu religion which was first used to reduce them to the status of outcastes. They gradually accepted the Hindu religion and followed the teachings of their leaders like Sri Narayana Guru; they sought education and established their own schools; in all this they were encouraged by the British who admitted them into civil service in Malabar. Many of them sought advancement through political parties; for decades now Ezhavas have remained the hardcore supporters of the Marxist parties in Kerala. Today they are no longer an "untouchable" scheduled caste, but a proud and powerful ethnic group to be reckoned with in Kerala.
The origin of Ezhavas is shrouded in mystery. One of their folk ballads (Vadakkan Pattukal), which celebrates the twelfth-century Aromal Chevakar, says: "Our ancestors of old/Had their home in the land of Lanka." The poem in question dates only from the eighteenth century, and as such it is not a reliable guide to the prehistoric origins of the Ezhavas; their profession of tapping the palm for toddy has created the legend that they brought the coconut palm from Sri Lanka to Kerala.
In North Malabar they are called Tiyans, but in the south they are known as Ezhavans and Chovans. The etymology of the words Ezhavan and Tiyan is traced to Izham, an old name for Sri Lanka
and Dweepan (Sanskrit), "islander." The word Chovan is supposedly derived from sevakan (servant). One thing about them is certain: they are as old or even older than any other ethnic group in Kerala; they are referred to in the ninth century Tharissa Pally Charter, and in the Thanjavur Charter of Raja Raja Chola. Their profession was not restricted to tapping coconut palms for toddy. They were primarily farmers, as indicated by the Tharisa Pally Charter. They were also soldiers by profession all over Kerala.
Many historians point out the connection between the Buddhists and the Ezhavas. For instance, the two gods of the Ezhavas, Cittan and Arattan are respectively Buddhist-Sidhan and Arhatan, according to C. V. Kunjuraman. Further, the Pandarams who perform priestly duties in Ezhava temples are considered to be successors of Buddhist monks. T. K. Veluppillai, the author of The Travancore State Manual, believes that during Buddhist ascendancy in Kerala, before the arrival of Tulu Brahmins, "the Ezhavas enjoyed great prosperity and power" (II, 845). It is very unlikely that the Ezhavas came from Sri Lanka and spread all over Kerala in large numbers from the south to the northern boundary. They were rather the mainstream of Munda-Drsvidian immigrants who left Tamil Nadu in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries to avoid persecution at the hands of their political enemies.